“I’m a First Amendment absolutist. I believe in only two things completely. The First Amendment, and boobs.”
It was an iconic, Churchillian moment, an epigram of soaring rhetoric, the kind that lifts nations and propels societies forward. It was reminiscent of former DC Mayor Marion Barry’s epic “B**** set me up.” Or, natch, Donald Trump’s “Grab them by the p****.”
In the President’s defense (yes, I wrote those words), Fox Sports analyst Clay Travis’ comments last week cannot be dismissed as “locker room banter,” the type of crude and sometimes cruel language men use when we think no one’s listening except our immediate co-conspirators. Rather, Travis’ words were a deliberate provocation, a studied pronouncement made on live national television, with the very intent of delivering viral content to a global digital audience.
The Big Blue Nation is all too familiar with Clay Travis’ m.o. Over the past several years, Travis has emerged as John Calipari’s most dedicated and prominent troll. As recently as last year, he claimed that Cal pays his players, a comment that our Matt Jones rightly called out as “irresponsible,” “shameful,” and indicative of a longer pattern of misbehavior: “He says things solely, solely to get attention, and it worked….He’s like, in my opinion, the Donald Trump of sports radio; just say something, throw it out there, act like people have to listen to it, then deal with it.”
Unfortunately in this Age of Rage, Travis’ game plan — and indeed his career — have been gaining traction. From his perch at the website Outkick the Coverage, Travis has tapped into today’s tribal political zeitgeist, emerging as a cultural warrior on behalf of a mostly rural, white, conservative audience that often coincides with the President’s base. Travis’ primary troll target has been ESPN, the sports network he constantly derides as “MSESPN” for its purported lack of attention to actual sports, in favor of the liberal political causes that selected athletes have championed. Travis has reveled in ESPN’s declining ratings and recent layoffs, blaming them on the network’s focus on anti-racism protests, and gestures such as bestowing the Arthur Ashe Courage Award on the transgendered Caitlyn Jenner.
Travis’ shtick is emblematic of a growing cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre among some fans (and notably many commenters on this web site): that athletes and commentators should “stick to sports.” It wasn’t that long ago when I was chastising my fellow progressives for carping about stars such as Tim Tebow who loudly proclaimed their faith and support for conservative causes. But now in our polarized body politic, it’s largely those on the right who have been critical of players, mostly African-American, who publicly register their discontent with society’s status quo.
Into this maelstrom leapt ESPN host Jemele Hill, who last Monday tweeted that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/other white supremacists.” I personally disagree with Hill: I believe that our President is a Trump supremacist, who puts his own personal interests above all others, black or white. But I strongly support her right to share her strongly-held personal beliefs. As I argued in my defense of Tebow, the notion that political speech should be limited to politicians is antithetical to our very democracy and our Bill of Rights protections. And the idea that sports networks and web sites should be “safe spaces” from social commentary is as absurd and as dangerous as the recent acceleration of efforts, mostly from the left, to ban controversial speech from college campuses.
Ultimately, the idea that Jamele Hill should be fired for a tweet she typed on her own time is outrageous. Do recall that NBC never considered dismissing a certain reality TV host who waged a multi-year, racially-tinged campaign, falsely alleging that our previous president was not born in this country.
On a recent CNN broadcast, Clay Travis actually agreed with me. Until he didn’t. Travis stated that Hill should not be fired because he’s a First Amendment absolutist. But in his next sentence, he argued that Hill should be fired because ESPN had previously fired Curt Schilling for a Facebook post that ridiculed the transgendered.
Confused? Watch it for yourself:
Of course, Travis agilely deflected from his breathtakingly breakneck self-contradiction with an out-of-nowhere proclamation of his patriotic admiration for bosoms. His comments weren’t particularly vulgar, nor have any of us been immune to making crude comments in private company. But in a serious policy discussion about a prominent woman, moderated by a professional woman, and broadcast before a national news audience, Travis was acutely disrespectful and way out of line — trying to attract attention to himself by intentionally and unnecessarily offending millions of women (and their husbands and fathers) who take umbrage in being rhetorically reduced to their body parts.
Many have called for Fox Sports to fire Clay Travis. I disagree. Such an action would only enlarge him as a martyr, broadcasting Travis’ trolling to even wider audiences. And I believe completely in the First Amendment. Even when (or especially when) it is exercised by boobs like Clay Travis.
This can, however, be a teaching moment for the sports world. You don’t like it when athletes or commentators don’t #SticktoSports? Change the channel, or click on another Web site. But a better approach is what I do when I see Clay Travis’ kind on TV: Turn up the volume. Listen. You might find common ground. Or strengthen your own convictions.
That’s the beauty of the First Amendment. We all live in our self-constructed political cocoons, watching the cable news shows or reading the social media feeds of those with whom we already agree. We will only resolve our deep political divide if we listen to each other. And let everyone have their say. Even sports figures.